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The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 2

The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 2

by Maria L. Evans

Part 2/3

“An isolated system, if not already in its state of thermodynamic equilibrium, spontaneously evolves towards it. Thermodynamic equilibrium has the greatest entropy amongst the states accessible to the system. Perpetual motion machines of the second kind are thus impossible.”

–Second Law of Thermodynamics

As everyone saw from my previous post, we’re exploring the possibility that the Laws of Thermodynamics can be an apt parable for the church. Here’s the lay version of the Second Law: “Everything gets more random.”

That notion of “randomness” has both personal and communal implications. I always figure that at a personal level, death is about as random as we all get. We become the dust of the cosmos physically, and whatever that thing called our soul is, it is delivered back to God. At a community level, it means we have to both love our most put together moments–those moments when we are touched by a perfect liturgical experience, a hymn sung right at the time we need it, a ministry that opens the door to a wonderful or touching surprise–and simultaneously grieve its fleeting, ephemeral nature. As mysteriously beautiful as they are, they don’t last as is. They only last as a collective of all the similar moments we never saw ourselves, and all those yet to be.

I’m afraid we don’t understand the power of our own journey to randomness as well as we understand the pain of it. We tend to understand it in our bad behavior and the bad behavior of others. For instance, an old saw that gets bantered around in recovery circles is that on average, one alcoholic intimately affects the lives of eight other people. Those eight people affect eight other people, those eight…well, you see where I’m going with this. One person’s pain and suffering that was transformed into heat instead of work spreads into this random pall of pain…and the world is full of layers upon layers of sheets of pain. It’s how I understand what composes our broken world.

If we flip it around, though, look what we get when we believe in the story of the ultimate positive transference of God’s energy through the work of Jesus. Suffering and death, transformed into resurrection and ascension, affected his apostles, his mother, and Mary Magdalene for sure, and we can assume at least a few others by name. Using the same understanding of randomness, if each of those people had only spread the Good News in Christ to eight people, it is a random display of power that can outdo all the pain and suffering in the world multiple times over…and we know several of them spread that news to considerably more than eight people each.

The power of the random state created by Christ, spread through us, can’t be measured with the classic yardsticks of church growth and development. You can’t put a value like an average Sunday attendance on this. It requires a leap of faith–letting go of what’s “ours.” As much as we like to attribute a good work to something we did, we are instead invited to trust that the collective of good works is capable of bearing their own fruit. Our baptismal covenant calls to us to do something that is impossible for each of us to do as individuals to the level we can do it as a group, and to let that groundswell of collective random goodness be the thing that moves people’s hearts to long for a piece of that action through belonging to an institutional church.

Despite news reports that claim Christianity is dying, I don’t totally buy it. Oh, I think Christianity connected to empire is certainly dying. But so much of what I read from researchers such as Elizabeth Dreschler tell me that there is a huge layer of the religious “nones” out there–believers, too be sure–but unchurched and with no reason to see worth joining one. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says it right at the end–there’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. We had no reason to expect institutional churches as we know them could generate this energy forever in the direction they did. Could it be that we are simply moving to a new state of spiritual equilibrium–one that embraces the randomness? One that creates greater accessibility to the system?

When have you observed the power of the “randomness” generated by the Gospel?

Part 1 is here.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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Adam Wood
Adam Wood
Adam Wood

I’ve recently suffered through a “Jesus is like Quantum Mechanics” homily that was just silly (from someone who I think gives excellent homilies on a regular basis). Also I’ve heard way too many sermons/talks/homilies/etc. start with the phrase “science tells us…” and then go off on something that is either an urban legend (frog boiling), misunderstood (why we dream), or poorly explained (your Second Law of Thermodynamics parable).

Information theory has come a long way since 1978. Not so much Newtonian physics. I suspect you have a firm grasp on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s “randomness” that people tend to have an issue with (as here).

And, as I said, your points are valid in relationship to Churchiness. (Although, like the recent Fanbois comparison, a more in-depth understanding of the other side of the analogy would perhaps unearth more interesting parallels.)

To the extent the poor-science explanation bothers me is that we (humans, that is) take a lot for granted in our broadcasting mode, forgetting about the receiver side. Incomplete or incorrect “science” analogies (and probably others too, which I wouldn’t notice) become stumbling blocks for people who do understand. As in the above-mentioned homily, I almost lost the point that was being made because I was stuck so much on how totally wrong and not-applicable the explanation of quantum physics was.

(You could blame me, the hearer, but- that doesn’t really do any good, because we can’t control how people receive our messages. We can only be as deliberate as possible in the way we broadcast them.)

Additionally (and this is NOT intended as a criticism, just an additional thought on why I think this sort of thing is important)…

In relationship to how various aspects of scientific thought relate to the Church, I think there is a wealth of unexplored analogy here.

A good analogy, requires the two systems to be actually analogous in some non-trivial way. When that is the case, careful observation of the two systems can REVEAL (or PRODUCE) new insights and information. This is true purpose of analogy, which often gets lost when analogy is used as a rhetorical device (a way to explain something that is already believed or understood), rather than as a mechanism for learning.

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for your comments, Adam. Although I’m still laughing at being lumped into the “religious people using poorly-explained science analogies” category.

That said, when it comes to physics I freely admit to being an appliance user. However, “randomness” was precisely the way the late Dr. Robert Peavler, my college phyisics professor, explained it to me as an undergraduate in 1978. Granted, it may be a dated analogy, and one for college freshman physics class, but I’m offering no scientific proof–merely a parable.

Adam Wood

I appreciate the ideas and sentiments in this series. What Maria Evans has to say about the Church seems apt.

However, I don’t think that “Everything gets more random” is a particularly good explanation of or gloss on the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

(I’m constantly perturbed by religious people using poorly-explained “science” analogies. It happens a lot.)

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says the energy and organization (which, in reality, are the same thing) spontaneously dissipates over time.

True and complete randomness contains 100% information density. Randomness dissipates over time.

This, in itself, has some interesting applications for Churchiness.

For example: 100% density (complete randomness) implies that things are completely unpredictable. As explained by N’s 2LoTD, things get MORE predictable over time, until there 0% density of information (a uniform distribution of energy), wherein all things are predictable. Institutional Churches tend that way, as do all human institutions- toward uniformity, toward predictability. This is the Heat Death of the Universe writ small.

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